Mr. Willows Removes his Socks
CLAD in a fragile but frolicsome nightgown which disclosed some rather interesting feminine topography, Sally Willows sat on the edge of her bed and bent a pair of large brown eyes on her husband. This had been going on for some minutes—this cold dispassionate appraisal. At the present moment a growing sense of exasperation was robbing it a little of its chill. Warmth had crept into her eyes, making them even more beautiful and effective, but still they were not pleasant. Far from it.
As yet, however, Mrs. Sally Willows had denied herself the indulgence of speech. For this she is to be commended. It was a piece of self-discipline she seldom if ever inflicted on her tongue. She was waiting, waiting for that sock to come off, hoping against hope that the crisis would pass and the evening remain calm if dull.
Meanwhile she was content to sit there on the edge of her bed and silently consider her husband. At the moment she was considering him as she would have considered a mere thing, or some clumsily animated object that forever kept knocking about her private life and getting in the way. Terribly in the way.
Five years ago everything had been so different. Then she never would have looked at Tim Willows as she was looking at him now. In those early marital days this man creature had never been in her way, could never get in her way too much. Naturally. That had been before he had become a mere thing in her eyes. Also, that had been before her own personal experience, enhanced by the vicarious liaison dished up by the high priests of Hollywood, had given her a true appreciation of men, had shown her how really attractive and devastating men could be and yet retain a quality so charmingly boyish and unspoiled ... great, silent, passionate men with whimsical eyes and just a shade of helplessness ... men who could find a taxicab when no taxicabs were to be found and who could purchase first-night tickets or reserve an illimitable vista of rooms on the Île de France—never forgetting the flowers and a trick toy or two—with admirable precision and dispatch and without the slightest display of nerves. Whenever her own husband attempted similar operations, on a much smaller scale, of course, he invariably returned unsuccessful, a nervous wreck bitterly complaining about the chicanery of mankind and the complexity of modern existence. Why, the poor beast could hardly make change without becoming so helplessly entangled that he was forced to turn to her with trembling hands. Frequently she feared the man would begin to chatter instead of talk.
As she sat there on the edge of the bed, a trim, sleek, wholly desirable figure with a smartly tailored head of glossy black hair, Sally Willows could think of at least a couple of dozen men more appealing to her than her husband, more worthy of her favours. When she had married Tim Willows she had not sufficiently appreciated her own possibilities or the possibilities of others. Idly she wondered how it would feel to be kept by a gloriously wealthy man who would give her everything she wanted, including unlimited freedom to exercise her charms on other men perhaps a trifle younger. Like most women who permit themselves to think at all she felt at times that she had it in her to become something pretty good in the line of a demi-monde, one in a position to pick and choose her votaries, even to command them. Nothing sordid, of course.
And at that moment, sitting on various beds in various parts of the world, innumerable wives were thus considering their wretched husbands and thinking the self-same thoughts. Who can blame them?
Yes, things were a good deal different now from what they had been five years back. For some time past—ever since she had danced with Carl Bentley, in fact—she had come to regard her husband as being just an animal about the house, an animal of the lower order that had been thoughtlessly endowed with the gift of speech and an annoying ability to reason rather trenchantly. It had to be fed at certain times, kept clean and profitably employed. In a way she was responsible, and it was all so very tiresome. Occasionally she still found this animal useful, extracted from it a certain amount of physical satisfaction. It brought home money and did things to the furnace. Sometimes it even made her laugh and feel unexpectedly tender. But romance—where was romance? Deep, vigorous, headlong passion—what had become of that? Had the cinema screens absorbed that precious commodity as blotting paper absorbs ink? And why did this animal fail to arouse in her that deliciously meretricious feeling that lent such zest to her flirtations with other men ... with Carl Bentley, especially?
All of which goes to show that Sally Willows was in rather a bad way. The girl stood sadly in need of a friendly but invigorating kick in her spiritual step-ins. But who was going to confer this favour upon her? She was worth it. She really was, for fundamentally Sally Willows was a good sort. One of the best. And at twenty-eight even a modern woman still has a lot to live and learn as well as to forget.
Cheerfully unconscious of his wife's protracted scrutiny, entirely ignorant of her state of mind, Mr. Willows, his slender body plunged in a deep armchair, was dreamily engaged in removing his socks. That is not quite accurate. The man was not actually removing his socks, but rather working himself up gradually to such a pitch that he would be forced to take some decisive action about his socks, one way or the other. It was almost as if he entertained the mad hope that the socks, once having ascertained his purpose, would obligingly remove themselves. From the expression in his rather dim, dissipated-looking eyes one would have been led to believe that he was enmeshed in the web of some mystic ritual of transcendent loveliness.
After thirty-five years of hostilities the man was still at war with himself and the world in general. So many men are, and like Tim, not altogether without reason. He had not succeeded in getting himself anywhere in particular, and he rather more than half suspected he never would. Somehow he could not bring himself to care greatly about it. That is bad, the very antithesis of the red-blooded, two-fisted, he-man attitude that invariably leads to success. He was too erratic ever to establish himself securely in the advertising agency that tolerated his presence. Also, he was far too brilliant. Brilliance in business as distinguished from cleverness is a disturbing factor. It is slightly immoral and always subject to change.
Underpaid although frequently patted on the back, he was nevertheless held suspect by the powers that were. An accusing aura of cynical detachment seemed to surround him. He was unable to shake it off, unable to conceal it. From somewhere within his being emanated a spirit of unorthodoxy. At times in his presence his superiors experienced a vague feeling of insecurity and for the moment even suspected the efficacy of their most dependable platitudes. Even while they were showering praise upon him for some brain wave they seemed to realise that in Tim Willows they did not have a willing worker for whom the honour and the glory of the Nationwide Advertising Agency, Inc., trod hot upon the heels of God and country, so hot, in fact, that at times both God and country were left a trifle winded.
From his point of vantage on a nearby bookcase Mr. Ram, in his turn, considered both husband and wife.
Mr. Ram was a small Egyptian statue. Old, ages old. The wisdom of the powdered centuries lay behind his eyes. He was a colourful little figure and quite authentic. Mr. Ram through the sheer charm of his persuasive personality had established himself as a household deity from the first days of the Willowses' joint experiment. He had moved with them from house to house, travelled with them over land and sea and shared in the ebb and flow of their never opulent fortunes. During those five years he had observed much and thought more. Whatever detractors might say about Mr. Ram they could not accuse him of having failed to take seriously his responsibilities to Tim and Sally.
Tim was more fortunate than he realised in possessing the casual affection of a globe-drinking uncle beside whom the blackest of sheep would have appeared pallid. Dick Willows, so far as the family had ever been able to ascertain, had only two aims in life: to keep bartenders on the alert and to ward off the pangs of solitude from as many lonely ladies as time and nature would permit. Upon the occasion of his nephew's wedding this amorous philanthropist had from some corner of Egypt dispatched Mr. Ram to the young couple, together with an indelicate note in which he suggested that the little man be appointed chamberlain of the ceremonies of the nuptial couch, adding that Mr. Ram was that sort of little man and that his presence would banish the last shred of decency as was only right and proper at such a time.
From the first Tim and Sally had been drawn to Mr. Ram. He, on his part, was attached to them both, although of late their constant bickerings had worn a trifle on his fine Egyptian nerves. He was beginning to suspect that perhaps a little something should be done about it.
To-night as he considered the pair there was something inscrutable in his beady, black little eyes. Although time meant absolutely nothing to Mr. Ram he could not figure out for the life of him why Tim was consuming so much of it in the removal of his socks. They were not such remarkable socks. Just the opposite. They were the most infamous-looking socks, an unsightly hole disgracing each crumpled toe. And as he watched and waited on the bookcase a suggestion of gathering purpose touched the usually benign features of the colourful little idol. Most assuredly, something should be done.
Apparently Sally felt somewhat the same way about it. She fixed her bemused husband with an unadoring gaze and gave utterance to a single word which sounded strangely cold and hostile in the silence of the room.
"Well?" she said.
Across vague leagues of nebulous speculations Mr. Willows's eyes sought Sally's.
"Huh?" he inquired inelegantly. "You said what?"
"The sock," she went on in the level tones of one exerting the utmost self-restraint. "Does it come off?"
Slowly and uncomprehendingly, Tim's eyes journeyed down the long reaches of his thin leg until they rested broodingly on his sock. Gradually intelligence dawned.
"Oh," he exclaimed, a pleased expression animating his face. "It's the sock. How stupid of me, Sally. It comes off. In fact, I'm going to take it off myself."
"That's good of you," said Sally Willows. "I would."
And he did.
He took the sock off, then sank back in the chair and regarded his liberated foot with an expression of mild surprise, as if trying to remember where he had last seen the thing. Then he indulged in a display of sheer animalism which his wife found exceedingly trying to bear. With a sigh of almost voluptuous contentment he deliberately wiggled his toes, some of which in the process gave tongue to a crackling sound.
"Don't," was all she said, slightly averting her gaze. "Please."
"What's that?" demanded Tim, who under the fascinating spell of his toes was rapidly receding into a vast expanse of fresh speculation.
"Don't wig———" Mrs. Willows began, then hesitated. "What you are doing," she continued with dignity, "is both revolting and extremely childish. Don't do it."
Tim Willows stilled his agitated toes and thoughtfully considered the surprising request.
"Can't see anything wrong in a man wiggling his toes a bit," he observed at last. "Good thing to do. Good for the toes ... for the entire foot, for that matter. Why don't you wiggle yours? Exercise 'em."
"There's only one place where I'd like to exercise my toes," replied Sally.
Mr. Willows disregarded this ruthless ambition and pondered a moment more.
"You know," he offered in a confidential voice, "I'll bet that almost everyone wiggles his or her toes at one time or another. It's not nice to think of Keats or Shelley or Lord Byron doing it, but they must have done it. Even that sloppy movie hero of yours. I'll lay odds he wiggles his priceless toes."
"Perhaps he does," conceded Sally, "but he doesn't explode a bunch of writhing firecrackers virtually in his wife's face."
A smile slowly arranged itself on Tim's lips and became fixed in a grin.
"I'm different," he declared irritatingly. "Bigger than he is. I take you into my confidence."
"There are certain little intimacies which even after five years of married life might just as well remain unrevealed," replied Mrs. Tim. "I don't like toes and never have. Can't bear the thought of toes, much less the sight."
"But I didn't ask you to think of my toes," observed Tim, in one of those gently reasonable voices that drive wives mad. "I can jolly well think of my own ten toes."
"How can I help it when you're waving the horrid things before my eyes?" A tragic note had crept into Sally Willows's voice.
"Trouble with you," continued Tim reflectively, "is that you've got a phobia against toes. You allow them to dominate your mind. They get the best of you. Now, take these toes, for instance. Look at "em."
"I won't take those toes," Sally protested passionately. "You take those toes and get them out of my sight. Cram them into your slippers. And, furthermore, I have no desire to get into a long, involved argument with you about toes or any other part of your miserable anatomy. Is there no fragrance in life? No romance? Must I be compelled to sit here all night with my thoughts no higher than your crablike toes?"
"Oh, all right. All right," Tim hastily agreed, realising from past experience that the breaking point was dangerously close at hand. "We'll say no more about toes."
He snapped off his other sock, thrust his feet into his slippers, struggled out of the chair and strayed off nakedly about the room.
"I say, Sally, seen anything of that shirt?" he called out after he had succeeded in methodically disarranging the contents of the closet and knocking down several of his wife's dresses, which he gropingly retrieved and blindly flung back in the general direction of their hangers. "Wonder why women invariably hang up their things in such a hell of a way," he continued irritably. "No brains at all. Now where could that shirt have got itself to? Just where? Tell me that."
"I just saw you taking it off," replied Sally, ice edging her words. "For goodness' sake cover your nakedness. You're unlike anything in heaven above or the earth beneath or the waters under the earth."
Mr. Willows allowed this remark to pass unchallenged, but stuck gamely to his aimless quest.
"I don't mean that shirt," he explained. "I mean that long voluminous garment I bought in Paris."
"When drunk," supplied his wife, then asked in a rather hopeless voice, "Aren't you ever going to use your pyjamas, Tim—the bottoms as well as the tops? Is it essential to your happiness that you rig yourself up in these weird costumes and go trailing about the house like some anĉmic beach-comber? Are you so physically different from all other adult males of your species that you must flaunt the lower half of your body in the eyes of the world?"
"I keep telling you," Tim retorted with weary patience, "that I can't stand pyjama bottoms. It's like toes with you. And I don't know anything about other men. I don't go around investigating. Anyway, it doesn't matter. If the Lord Himself appeared before me at this very moment clad in a pair of pyjama bottoms I could only find it in my heart to feel sorry for him. The damn things get in my way. They roggle up. They—they choke me."
"You needn't trouble yourself to make it any plainer," said Mrs. Willows with some attempt at dignity. "Don't give me a demonstration. Just the same, I'm sure other women's husbands must wear the trousers of their pyjamas."
"Sure, a lot of lizzies," proclaimed Mr. Willows derisively. "Real men take their pyjama trousers off when they go to bed."
"Don't be vulgar," said Mrs. Tim.
"Well, we won't go into that," he remarked, turning to a bureau drawer and pawing through its contents. "I'm different, as I told you before," he went on. "Much franker. I take you into my confidence—entirely."
"You're altogether too frank for decency."
He dragged several yards of material from the drawer and finally succeeded in draping it over his body. Above this tentlike arrangement his face emerged with a triumphant expression. The remainder of him was far from lovely.
"I imagine the reason the French build their shirts like this," he observed, "is because they're constantly running in and out of doors with husbands and wives and entire hotel staffs running after them. It must be that."
"I'm not interested," returned Sally, "but I do know that that atrocity you're wearing is neither one thing nor the other. There's too much of it for a day shirt and too little for a night. It's simply an unsatisfactory compromise."
"Well, at any rate," replied Tim thriftily, "I'm not letting it go to waste. I'm getting my money's worth out of it like any French gentleman would do."
"I'd even pay good money to have you take it off," said Sally.
"Oh, my dear!" her husband murmured, looking at her archly.
"Shut up," interrupted Sally. "You're not amusing. Is there no romance anywhere in that feeble frame of yours? Must I spend all my nights with a comic-strip character—a clown?"
Tim looked thoughtfully down at his wife.
"Romance, my child," he told her, "does not reside in the tail of a shirt. Its seat is here—in the heart."
He slapped himself so vigorously just below that organ that the front of his shirt gave a startled flip, and Mrs. Willows hastily closed her eyes. The effect of his little speech was somewhat marred.
"If I were you," remarked Mrs. Willows, "I wouldn't strive for nobility in that costume. It doesn't quite come off."
"Is that so?" he replied unenterprisingly, turning his back on his wife and running his eyes along a row of volumes in the bookcase. "What shall we read to-night?"
"I don't feel like reading anything to-night," Sally Willows replied petulantly. "That's all we do in this beastly place, anyway. It's read, read, read, night after night. No change. Nothing. First thing you know we'll be old. Life will be over. Other wives go places and do things——"
"Right!" shot back Mr. Willows. "They sure do."
"And I don't mean that either," Sally went on. "They are seen—not buried alive. What do I see? Where do I go? Cooped up here in this miserable house all day long. No companionship. No relaxation. Same old thing day in and day out, year after year. Then home you come, his lordship from the office. And what do you do? Do you offer me a couple of tickets to a play? Do you suggest going out to a dance or something? Ha ha! Not you. No. You go prancing round the house in a horrid old shirt like a third-rate comedian in a burlesque show. And then you ask me to read. Of all things, to read. Well, do you know, my darling husband, you haven't even taken me to one honest-to-God night club? Not one. When I married you——"
Tim Willows swung round to confront his wife, and the tails of his shirt flared alarmingly.
"If you made a phonograph record of that set lament of yours," he said nastily, "you could turn the damned thing on whenever you felt like it and save no end of breath. I know it myself by heart. Word for word, sentence for sentence it's graven on my brain. Now go on and tell me what I led you to expect before you married me—how I tricked you to the altar with false promises. Come to an hysterical climax about my unjustifiable jealousy and then we can both rush out into the night and offend the damn neighbours."
He turned bitterly away from the small, furious figure seated on the bed and, going to the window, stood there gazing out into the pinched face of winter. Hardly thirty feet away stood another neat little suburban home—with garden and garage—and in between lay nothing but dirty snow, its flat surface broken by a straggling line of frozen shrubs. Lifting his eyes a little he saw the roofs of other houses. There were thousands of them—too many of them. He felt himself sinking, going down in a sea of neat little suburban homes. In desperation he again elevated his eyes and let them rest on the dark outline of the distant hills. Bright stars were hanging above those hills. The stark limbs of numb trees reached achingly up to their cold beams. And lights studded the hills, the lights of other homes. 'Way off there people were living and carrying on life. Tim wondered idly what they were like, those people who lived over there. Did they, too, commute? Did they go eternally to offices? Did they have to hang up their pride with their hats and coats and swallow rebellious words in the teeth of secure executives? Was economic necessity always goading them on, marshalling them down windy platforms, cramming them into subways that steamed and stank, and finally plopping them down in front of dreary-looking desks, nervously baited and physically ruffled even before the long day had begun? Was life just going to be like that all the damn time? He had a dim understanding of his wife's restlessness of spirit. In a way he sympathised with her. Probably their glands were all wrong. They weren't real people. Not properly equipped for life. Maladjusted to the world. Tim did not know. Nor did he give a hang. Something was all wet somewhere. He, too, would like to try a night club, look at a lot of naked girls. It might be entertaining. Damned if he knew. He'd like to vary the monotony of the daily routine and talk with some interesting people—that is, if they would talk with him. Whom had he ever licked? Never done anything much. Only thought and talked ... complained. But as things stood, what could he do about it? He was in no position to create his own circumstances ... to pluck friends, funds, and entertainment from thin air. And anyway, what the hell was she grousing about? She was out all the day gallivanting round. She had freedom of action, thought, and speech. What was eating her? God knows, she was not repressed unless she created her own inhibitions through sheer intellectual vacuity. She had her day, her bridge, movies, shopping, teas, lunches, and even men. He was painfully aware of the latter. No, there was little about which she could complain. Perhaps he was wrong at that. What, after all, did he know about this woman? What did she know about herself? They were all in it together. A mess ... a cul-de-sac.
Tim Willows, standing by the window, experienced a feeling of utter frustration. It was a spiritually debilitating feeling—a miserable thing. More profoundly hopeless than a nauseating hangover after a long-distance spree. More hopeless because now the brain was clear and could look into the future. And what a future it was! Tim realised he had just about reached his highest peak. He wouldn't be earning much more money ever. Less, if anything. And he did not have much faith in breaks. People who waited for breaks, he had found, usually went broke. There she blew, the future, the taunting white whale. Constant bickerings and recriminations paved the way. And the rest—just sour grapes and shabby expedients. Well, it was a good thing they had no spawn, although a baby or two barging about the house might have given them a bit of a kick. At least they'd have something to think about besides themselves.
"There's going to be a change," came coldly from the bed. "I don't intend to stand this life any longer. Other women work. Why shouldn't I? If you won't make a life for me I'll make a life for myself. I deserve a life. I'm still under thirty and not altogether unattractive. All you seem to care about is reading and writing and bad gin."
At that moment she saw herself as the glorified secretary of a huge Wall Street wolf with a boyish smile. She was helping him to ruin thousands of inoffensive lives in one mad and dazzling coup. Then the Riviera and a series of top-notch seductions. Perhaps in the end she would discover that she had always loved her husband. But, of course, she'd have to do considerable experimenting before she found that out.
Tim's mirthless laugh smeared a streak across the pleasant picture.
"You've got a damn poor chance of finding life and romance on a desk top," he said. "And if you're satisfied with what you do find there you're a whole lot dumber than I thought you were, and that would make you a little less than a half-wit." He turned from the window and confronted the charming feminine figure which for him at the moment had lost a great deal of its charm. "What in the name of God are you kicking about, anyway?" he demanded. "You haven't a damn thing to do, no drudgery or monotonous routine. The Twills, such as they are, still take care of the house. You can pound your ear all day long or do what you jolly well please. No cooking, no washing—not even a child. I leave you here in the morning literally drugged with sleep only to find you at night a nervous and physical wreck. Your first words are either a complaint or a criticism. And always in the offing is the threat of a nice, noisy case of hysterics. You hold that in reserve as a last resort because you've found out that it's an infallible weapon. You can win every time no matter how wrong you are, but nothing is ever changed, nothing is ever settled. You don't even drive me down to the station in the morning. At night you habitually arrive there late through some unavoidable delay. Your excuses are so illogical they fairly sicken me to hear them. I wish to several different sets of gods I could change places with you for a while. Believe me, I do. I'd jolly well find something to occupy my time without looking for work. I'd sit down and write myself a book. It might be a rotten book, but at least I'd have the satisfaction of finding it out. I know I could do it, and in your heart, when you use it, you know I could do it, too."
Strange to say, Sally did know he could do it. Even at that heated moment she realised that this husband of hers was a little better than she allowed herself to admit. There was a lot more to him than any of the men she knew. That was just the trouble. There was too much to him. He was not a normal male animal and he wouldn't act like one. He was a sort of artist without an art, which was much like being a man without a country. An unexpected wave of sympathy almost smothered the retort trembling on her lips. That would never do. They were often like this with each other now, their best words remaining unspoken while their worst ones came tumbling out.
"I'd like to take you up on that," she flung at him. "I wish I could change places with you. Oh, how I do! You clear out of it all every morning, go to the city and see something new—eat where you like and what you like—interesting men to talk to—good-looking girls to see—lots of them. And you don't miss one, I'll bet. You've got a rotten pair of eyes. You're like a little old lascivious hermit—a twittering dog."
"Why like a twittering dog?" Tim Willows inquired. "I don't quite get that. Twittering dogs and hermits don't seem to——"
But the course of Sally's words was not to be deflected by irrelevant questions.
"Don't worry, my darling," she continued. "I'd change places with you quick as a wink. At least, you do something, move about, create a little world of your own, travel places and stay overnight. I never stay anywhere overnight. No, here I am—chained down. A prisoner. All I need is a striped suit and a number."
Mr. Willows smiled fleetingly at this, then stood for a moment looking seriously down at his wife.
"Sally," he said gently, "I think you must be mad or else you get a certain backhand satisfaction in being so consistently wrong-headed. You know damn well I don't enjoy the work I am doing, the mock importance and the hypocrisy of it, the daily drip I have to listen to and the humble pie I have to eat. A week of it would bore you to tears. Don't know how I've hung on so long myself. And I wouldn't have if I hadn't exploded occasionally. But I don't think I'll be able to hang on much longer. I feel a bust-up collecting itself right in the pit of my stomach. It's due almost any day now. Old man Gibber gets dottier all the time. He and his Nationwide——"
"Do all men complain——"
Sally's question was never finished. A knock sounding irritably on the bedroom door put an end to further hostilities. As if overtaxed by this unreasonable formality, Mrs. Twill, as was her wont, opened the door just wide enough to permit the inthrust of her head. More than once Mrs. Twill had told her husband that it always made her feel foolish to knock on Mr. Tim's door, "him being hardly out of the cradle yet."
"You'll feel a whole lot foolisher some night if you don't knock," had been Twill's sage advice.
For as far back as Tim could remember, the Twills had worked in tandem for one or another member of his family.
"Would you like to have the Twills help you out for a while?" his grandmother would ask some visiting relation, and upon receiving an affirmative reply the Twills would be packed up and bundled off to another household. In this way they gained a more comprehensive knowledge of the Willows' family history and private affairs than was possessed by any single member. It had been an old family of old people. Most of them were now beyond the need of servants, but the Twills still went on tenaciously clinging to a world which for them was peopled mostly with memories. It was as if they had been granted a special dispensation by Time to keep on going until the last of the Willowses had stopped. Then their work on earth would be ended and they would be free to follow into another world the family they had so faithfully served, there to begin the whole thing over again under the divine auspices of a chatty, pro-Willows God. Although the Twills were rather more of an obligation than an asset, they were comforting to have about the house. Their chief interest in life centered round Sally and Tim. Sally's girth they constantly studied with patiently hopeful eyes, but so far no embryonic Willowses had rewarded their watchful waiting.
"I can't stop him," Judy Twill announced tragically.
"Whom do you want to stop?" demanded Sally.
"The old fool," continued Mrs. Twill. "I know he'll break his neck on those basement stairs. Will you call him up, Mr. Tim? The furnace is stone cold."
"The mother of that damned furnace must have been done in by an ice box," complained Tim as he made for the door, uttering loud and discouraging noises as he went.
"Do hurry," called Sally, all other considerations forgotten in her anxiety for the safety of the venerable but pig-headed Mr. Twill.
"Come out of that, Peter," shouted Tim down the back stairs. "Don't you dare put a foot in that basement."
Through the floor, hollowly, came the protesting voice of Twill:
"But I can fix it, Mr. Tim," it said.
"God, Himself, couldn't fix that furnace," replied Tim. "Don't you even breathe on the thing. Snap out of it, Peter, and go to bed. Get yourself a drink if you can find one."
There was no response to this, but certain noises in the kitchen assured Tim that Peter had changed his mind and found warmth for himself instead of the house.
"Yes, Miss Sally," Mrs. Twill was saying as Tim returned to the room. "I certainly agree with you. It's a shame and scandal he doesn't wear pants."
"I can stand to hear very little more of that," announced Tim, looking darkly at the two women. "What I do with the lower half of my anatomy is no one's business."
"Oh, is that so?" put in Sally, slightly elevating her eyebrows. "Well, I like that."
"How do you mean?" asked Mrs. Twill.
"Be still," snapped Tim. "I'm speaking of raiment now. If you mention those pyjama trousers again I'll take them out of the drawer and cut them up into little bits. I'll burn the——"
"He was just like that as a baby," interrupted Mrs. Twill as calmly as if he had not been present. "No matter what we put on him at night you'd find him mother-naked in the morning—bare bottom and all."
"You can find him like that almost any time when he's not at the office," announced Sally. "But who wants to?"
"If you all have thoroughly finished," said Mr. Willows with frigid politeness, "I'll go down to the basement. Good-night, Judy. Tell that ancient wreck of yours that if he ever attempts to go down there again I'll put him on the retired list for good."
When Judy had withdrawn, Tim Willows looked down long and thoughtfully at his young wife.
"You know," he said at last, "my idea of hell is to be chained to a line of smugly secure home owners. Every one of them is stoking a glowing furnace and liking it. Every one but me. I am crouched on my bare knees, eternally doomed to pull cold clinkers from the sneering mouth of that damned thing down in the basement. That would be hell, and I'm already getting a sample of it right here on earth. In fact," he added as he walked to the door, "everything in this house is a little bit of hell."
"Then why not say 'To hell with everything in the house'?" inquired Sally, with one of her most disagreeable smiles.
"I do," replied Tim earnestly. "I most emphatically damn well do."
There was a pained expression in Mr. Ram's eyes as he watched Tim Willows leave the room. High time that steps were taken to show these two mere mortals the error of their ways.